I’m serious. The following contains spoilers for the entire season 1 of Jessica Jones. Continue reading at your own risk! My original, spoiler-free remarks may be found here.
The overriding theme of JJ, for at least the first season, is surviving abuse — and not just for Jones herself. The support group of other Kilgrave victims clearly mirrors that of domestic abuse and rape survivor support groups, to hammer it home for even the most obtuse viewers what’s going on here. Even some of the usual support-group cliches show up in these scenes: the disengaged protagonist who acts like she doesn’t belong but clearly does; the guy who, on the other hand, probably doesn’t really belong there (it’s just a jacket, dude); the lookie-loo who wasn’t actually a victim. By the time season 1 reaches its conclusion, the number of people eligible for the Kilgrave victim support group could probably rent out the Javits convention center for their meetings.
But he wasn’t the only source of twisted mental domination we experience. Trish’s mother is introduced midway through the season and is revealed to be every bit of the charming sociopath as Kilgrave, if without his supernatural powers. Carrie Anne Moss shows elements of the abuser’s narcissism to both her ex-wife and her girlfriend, with disastrous repercussions to both.
And if that weren’t enough, Trish was also the victim of a psychopath boyfriend, one who also doesn’t need mental superpowers to worm his way in to her heart. We first meet Will Simpson as he was trying to kill her — ok, this was at the behest of Kilgrave, but still a bit of a red flag, right? But it isn’t long before he’s sweet talking her to take him back with profuse apologies, straight out of the Official Abuser Handbook, and, after she does, he seems ok. At least until he’s flipped out and become the pill-popping villain Nuke, trying to kill Jessica and beat up Trish… all the while because he believes he loves her.
That is what unites Kilgrave, Trish’s mother, and Will “Nuke” Simpson: an absolute conviction that everything they do, no matter how despicable, is actually in the service of some immature, deranged vision of love for their victim. And the victim feels this, along with their dominance, and that peculiar way the abuser thrusts their worldview into your own mind, making you accept them as the reasonable one and yourself as the crazy one.
I don’t really have the vocabulary to describe this. Men as a rule don’t. We never learn of abuse as anything except something that happens to other people. Fortunately, Cracked.com writer Alice Jane Axness does have the vocabulary:
“There are a few points in the show where the writers are almost daring you to feel bad for Kilgrave, who is played by the deeply charming David Tennant… I loved these scenes, because if you’re not a shitty person you immediately feel sleazy about your unconscious instinct to feel badly for him, which is what we need, dammit. We need to recognize how gross it is to feel bad for rapists and abusers, even if they’re charming.”
Whenever I tried to walk away, my ex let me know how I was the horrible one for making her, who’s just a poor girl, feel so hurt. Never mind what had triggered the latest of my many attempted flights from the apartment: whether it was another volley of putdowns, or overruling my desire to see friends or family, or how crazy I am, or how nobody besides her could ever love me (that one was a particular favorite of hers). She literally could not recognize my hurt. It was only about her. Any defiance of her was only done just to hurt her. This is a peculiar and childlike narcissism shared by all abusers, including the ones on Jessica Jones.
And: “Jessica has the strength to kill someone with pretty minimal effort on her part. She is physically so much stronger than Kilgrave, which many people would assume makes her a difficult woman to abuse. The show does a fantastic job of proving that that’s bullshit.”
I am 6’4″; my ex is 5’2″. Like Jones, I could have physically overpowered my tormentor at any moment. But so what? For one, you can’t even consider that when you are under someone’s spell. For another, it would not have gone well for either of us. The police were always suspicious of Jones and never really believed her, not even in the series finale, reflecting the typical attitude of law enforcement towards DV victims. Similarly, if I had ever laid a finger on my ex, I know how it would have ended up: with her bailing me out of jail, and her using the experience to prove how worthless a brute I was, to further her grasp on me. She goaded me to try to touch her countless times for this reason.
“The fun doesn’t stop once you get away from your abuser, though. Long after Kilgrave stops literally controlling her mind, Jessica still struggles with not letting him control her life… Another thing the show gets spot-fucking-on is the lingering fear. It doesn’t matter if you have superpowers; there is an extreme, all-encompassing fear when you’ve been abused by someone… In practice, every time I see him [Mark, the writer’s abuser], I’m terrified. It feels like what I imagine drowning feels like.”
That’s it. That’s exactly the feeling that I’ve never been able to describe. To this day, so many years later: the thought of her reappearing at my doorstep makes me feel like a drowning man. I don’t know how else to describe it. I know this scenario probably won’t actually happen — she’s long since moved on to new prey, thank God. But I can’t really explain that to the irrational, animal part of my brain. There are few things I fear more in this life than my ex. All 5’2″ of her.
And this is what Jessica Jones captures so well. By throwing superpowers into the mix, it makes it easier to convey just how deeply abuse hurts — but also, with secondary villains like Simpson and Trisch’s mother, the show explores how abuse really needs no superhuman abilities, and how it leaves lasting damage long after getting away from the abuser.
Consider how Jones systematically alienates the others around her, in particular Luke Cage. When he spits at her, “You are a piece of shit,” it’s practically what Jones wants to hear, to confirm what she already believes, that she deserved the abuse and that nobody else can love her. At least then, the abuse makes logical sense.
One last thing. That damage that is left? It never goes away. That’s what therapists don’t tell you. You are changed for life. One part of your mind will always blame yourself, because as mentioned, at least then the abuse makes sense. Jones will always be damaged goods and might even have flashbacks to the Tenth Doctor in later seasons. My own confidence never entirely came back. Even little things come up to remind me: my opposition to the death penalty is her doing, and I hate that.
Countless articles have been written about Jessica Jones and abuse and exploitation in all the usual outlets. But there’s a reason why. It touched an emotional nerve like no other mass-market show I’ve ever seen.